Advertisers’ Social Media Strategies: History Repeated?

This weekend I picked up a great Harvard Business Review article outlining a clear overinvestment by corporate America in “destination Web sites” that are failing to return on investment because (according to the executive summary) “most consumer product companies don’t provide enough value or dynamic information to induce customers to make repeat visits — and disclose the detailed information-that make such sites profitable.” Yep, sounds about right, I thought. The article was published in November 2000.

There is a saying: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This lesson is particularly important for today’s advertisers, given how quickly the present becomes the past in the Internet age. Yet as I read the article, “Contextual Marketing: The Real Business of the Internet,” by David Kenny and John Marshall, I sat astonished. This article could have just as well been written in 2008. The article’s executive summary makes a simple suggestion: “Discard the notion that a Web site equals an Internet strategy.” With only a couple of minor tweaks, this idea could work today: Discard the notion that adding social networking functionality equals a social media strategy.

The parallels continue throughout the article as Kenny and Marshall tell marketers they need to become “contextual marketers.” They further examine case studies of Johnson & Johnson strategy to “insert itself into preexisting relationships at the optimal moments” (see today’s borrowing of social media influence) and Unilever’s effort to give useful tools to the shoppers it hoped to influence (see today’s application develop for social media platforms.) Contextual marketing was refocusing Internet marketing on delivering the right message to the right person at the right time.

The article continues to hit on points that seem to have already been forgotten. The over-arching message, which focuses on getting away from a destination strategy and finding ways to become more relevant and useful to people where and whenever you can insert your brand, is just as relevant to today’s advertisers. Rather than spending the time and resources to attempt to create a destination social network, why not look for ways you can spend those resources to create value for your target consumers and brand advocates where they reside in the current social media landscape? The issue is that what this article defines as being a “contextual marketer” requires significant reevaluation in the current social media landscape. The issue of relevancy is not a simple function of the state of a consumer in the purchasing process; rather, relevancy within social media demands a focus on the individual’s state of social interaction.

The article’s focus is much broader than advertising, expanding into various marketing initiatives and exploring the effect of shifts in medium technologies. Many of these suggestions are, in a more traditional way, ahead of their time as well. I would definitely recommend downloading the article, available for $6 for the PDF file.

But the question I want to focus on here is this; In a year, will Kenny and Marshall, or our other leading industry thought leaders, be writing an article chronicling the failures of major brands attempting to develop “destination social networks” or the inability of brands to realize positive returns on the cost of building social media functionality? Or, can the industry define what it means for brands to be “contextual advertisers” within social media?

The article ends: “It will not be cheap or easy, but it will be far better than pouring $10 billion into Web sites that few people visit…”

By Joe Marchese
Joe Marchese is President of Archetype Media, developing the next generation brand advertising platform, and aiming to bridge the gap between Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley.
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